Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Discord Over Mostar Unity Plans

Croat and Bosniak politicians fear they will lose out under plans unify city administration.
By Maria Vlaho

Bosnia’s western governors hope plans to reopen Mostar’s ancient bridge later this year will crown their efforts to unite the city politically, but few citizens expect the resumption of foot traffic across the Neretva to herald an end to the divisions.


A unified city administration is expected to start work from March 15 at the latest. After 12 years of wrangling between politicians from ethnic-based parties, the High Representative Paddy Ashdown in January ordered an end to the political segregation of the city into Bosniak and Croat zones.


The Ashdown ruling means one city council will replace the current six municipalities - three Croat, three Bosniak - while the total number of councillors will fall from 194 to 35.


Though some citizens will rejoice at seeing their parallel city governments scrapped, nervous parties on either side of the Neretva have voiced opposition.


For different reasons, both the main Croat and Bosniak parties worry that they will lose power under the Ashdown reforms.


Most discord centres on a complicated system of ethnic “weighting”, designed to ensure that no one community can outvote the rest.


A two-thirds majority will be needed for the council to change Ashdown’s rules - or even the names of streets - a sensitive issue in former Yugoslavia.


Of the 35 councillors, not more than 15 can come from any one party. Mostar’s Serbian community - a shrunken and marginalised force since the Bosnian conflict - will have four, while one will be reserved for others.


But what looks like a benign safeguard to some, is viewed by others as discrimination. The Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, representing the largest ethnic group in the city, says the safeguards attack their democratic rights.


“The Croats make up 60 per cent of the electoral body, but will have only 42 per cent of seats on the council,” complained Josip Merdzo, leader of the HDZ caucus on the council.


The Bosniak Party of Democratic Action, SDA, which rules the eastern half of Mostar, is equally discontented.


“They stand to lose control over what they now hold,” said the editor of Start magazine Ozren Kebo. “It’s probably the least worst solution.”


The SDA once demanded a united Mostar. Its stance altered as a result of the demographic changes that the city experienced in the 1990s.


Bosniaks were the largest single ethnic group before the Bosnian conflict erupted in 1991 but have since lost ground to Croats - now an absolute majority.


In the meantime, the HDZ and SDA barons have consolidated their power in their respective zones on either side of the Neretva.


Over 12 years, people have got used to living and working in their own sector and rarely cross over. A new generation of children has been raised in ethnically pure schools and does not even remember when mixing was the norm.


After getting used to life in insulated communities, many citizens on either side of the river now look on the prospect of unity with a kind of dread.


“It’s a disgrace!” said one Croat. “The Serbs have gained most [ a reference to the fact that they could hold the balance of power]. The Croats are systematically abused. If the international community really wants peace here, Mostar should be divided into three.”


“The Croats are discriminated against again,” agreed another Croat. “We are the majority in this city but we will not have majority in the city council.”


For the exact opposite reason, Bosniaks polled by IWPR took much the same line. “Of course, we are against a unified Mostar,” one Bosniak said. “The Croats have only become the majority as a consequence of war and because they expelled all the Serbs and at least 20,000 Muslims.”


“Because of the High Representative’s decision, both the Croats and the Bosniaks from now on will have to lobby Serbs to have majority in the City Council,” another Bosniak said.


Ashdown has warned that his decision was bound to appear controversial and to disappoint many.


“Not everyone will be satisfied, but everyone will find something for himself,” he said in a televised appeal on January 28.


“In the end, whether Mostar succeeds in overcoming its divisions and the bitterness of the past is not up to me, but up to political leaders, no one else.”


Maria Vlaho is an IWPR intern in London and Vladimir Maric a Mostar-based freelance journalist.